Japan's economy grows faster than expected on exports and tourism

Number of foreign visitors has recovered to more than 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels as of June

The Nakamise shopping street in Tokyo's Asakusa district. Japan’s economic growth jumped at an annual pace of 6% in the April-June period. AP
Powered by automated translation

Japan’s economy has expanded much faster than forecast, as a surge in exports more than offset weaker-than-expected results for both business investment and private consumption.

Gross domestic product grew at an annualised pace of six in the second quarter, marking the strongest growth since the last quarter of 2020, Cabinet Office data showed.

The figure exceeded economists’ forecast of 2.9 per cent growth. Net exports contributed 1.8 percentage points to the expansion versus consensus estimates of 0.9 points.

Tuesday’s data adds to signs that the world’s third-largest economy continues to recover from the pandemic. The size of the economy grew to 560.7 trillion yen ($3.85 trillion), the biggest on record, surpassing its pre-pandemic peak.

The result was consistent with views at the International Monetary Fund, which recently bumped up its 2023 growth outlook for Japan to 1.4 per cent.

Still, the strong result came with caveats, as much of the growth came from external demand.

“I can’t say all is good when I look at the content. Only net exports beat estimates a lot while consumption weakened and it remains below the level before the pandemic,” said Taro Saito, head of economic research at NLI Research Institute. “I can say that this won’t be a factor to move the BOJ towards policy normalisation.”

Bloomberg Economics' Taro Kimura said. “the only problem – it was all export driven and masked rocky conditions in domestic demand. The drop in consumption, despite a tailwind from this year’s reopening, reflects the impact of wages lagging far behind cost-push inflation.”

Trade data showed that exports remained resilient over the past quarter, led by auto shipments to the US and Europe. It’s unclear if that boost will be sustained, as economists see headwinds on the horizon in the US, China and Europe.

Rising numbers of inbound travellers, whose contribution is also factored into the net exports component of GDP, provided a big economic boost after authorities lifted border controls at the end of April. The number of foreign visitors has recovered to more than 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels as of June, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation. Data for July is due Wednesday.

Tourism spending is expected to provide a bigger boost from August after China last week lifted a ban on group travel. Chinese tourists accounted for more than a third of the more than 1 trillion yen in such outlays in 2019.

“Compared with the January-March period, the improvement seen in consumption driven by increased activity has weakened,” said Harumi Taguchi, principal economist at S&P Global Market Intelligence. “Rising prices are increasingly causing consumers to hold off on buying items.”

Capital spending by businesses was flat, versus forecasts of a 0.4 per cent increase, while private consumption, which accounts for more than 50 per cent of total GDP, unexpectedly declined by 0.5 per cent.

Those signs of domestic weakness may quell market speculation that the Bank of Japan will seize the strong headline number as justification for debating whether to mull a move away from its massive stimulus, as Governor Kazuo Ueda has cited uncertainties in overseas markets in recent comments.

In its latest Outlook report, the BOJ noted that external demand may flag in the months ahead, saying, “Exports and production are projected to be affected by the slowdown in the pace of recovery in overseas economies resulting mainly from the impact of global inflationary pressure and policy interest rate hikes by central banks.”

Still, the result may be welcome news to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida as he looks for positive developments to reverse a recent dip in his approval ratings in nationwide polls. His popularity suffered after the roll-out of new ID card for citizens was beset by problems.

The weakening of the yen is weighing on domestic demand as it drives up costs for imported goods. “Import prices are also rising due to the weak yen and other factors, putting downwards pressure on imports,” said Shumpei Goto, researcher at The Japan Research Institute.

That impact may linger as the yen slid on Tuesday to its weakest versus the dollar since November.

Updated: August 15, 2023, 4:45 AM